A picture of a banner at Files Cemetery in Hot Springs raises questions about who is buried there and why a memorial to AIDS victims isn't yet installed.
AT FILES CEMETERY: A banner raises questions about who is buried there and why a memorial to AIDS victims isn't yet installed. Robert Klintworth

In 2015 Arkansas Times readers, and then the rest of the world, learned the story of Ruth Coker Burks. A single mom in Hot Springs during the nascent days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, Burks cared for dying young men when no one else would. AIDS victims scorned by their families even in death had a forever home in Burks’ family cemetery, where she buried their ashes under cover of darkness so their graves wouldn’t be desecrated.

That story is heralded in her new book, “All the Young Men,” and an in-the-works movie about the care she gave to men dying of AIDS in the early days, when stigma and fear kept others away. Arkansas Times reporter David Koon’s 2015 story in which he christened Burks “The Cemetery Angel” catapulted Burks into the national limelight. She has attracted loads of fans and supporters in the years since, with articles and TV segments appearing in the local, national and international press. Burks published her autobiography in 2020 and sold the rights to her story for the movie, to be called “The Book of Ruth,” which her attorney said is in pre-production.

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But some Burks supporters are now raising questions about proceeds from a $75,000 GoFundMe campaign launched in 2015 to cover the costs of a memorial to the men Burks said she buried in Files Cemetery in Hot Springs. The last of that donated money went into Burks’ bank account in 2017, but a memorial has yet to materialize. Burks’ attorney said that while she has spent some of that money — including on medical expenses — she will replenish the fund in full and put all of it toward a monument.

The organizer of that fundraiser, a New Yorker named Travis Dubreuil, said Burks cut off contact with him years ago after he started asking questions about how the money was being spent. Volunteers who have planted flowers and tended Files Cemetery over the years say they’re frustrated the cemetery still lacks a memorial and the financial resources needed to keep it landscaped when Burks has had money for this purpose for years. Burks herself has said things publicly about the memorial that haven’t panned out, at least not yet — that a Boston firm is designing it for free, that it will include the names of all the men buried there.

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And members of the Files family, whose name the cemetery bears, say they’re flummoxed by the whole thing. While they welcome the flowers and volunteer hours and even the ashes of the young men who died of AIDS, they say Burks is mistaken. She never owned plots in the cemetery to begin with, they say.

picture of Ruth Coker Burks as the grand marshal of the 2021 Fayetteville Pride Parade Brian Chilson
GRAND MARSHAL: Ruth Coker Burks at the Fayetteville Pride Parade in June.

Most of these people say they commend Burks, that she deserves the accolades she’s gotten and they don’t want to detract from her good deeds. “I know what she did in the past. I was there and saw it,” said Tim Looper, a minister and longtime member of the Hot Springs gay community. Decades ago, Looper attended the burials of two of his friends, interred in cookie jars, at Files Cemetery.

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But Looper, who helped organize teams of volunteers to work on the cemetery over the years, now says he feels embarrassed and let down by the lack of any visible progress. “The memorial never happened, and there was no explanation,” he said.

He was originally reluctant to challenge Burks, considered by so many to be a modern-day saint. “People are afraid to speak up because it looks so bad,” he said.

Whose cemetery is it, anyway?

There are no locks on Files Cemetery, the site where Burks said she buried the ashes of early AIDS victims whose families declined to claim them. The 0.767 acre plot was originally set aside for family graves in the late 1800s but was deeded over to the county long ago, said Paula Bruce, a descendant of cemetery founder Abner Files.

A small trust set up to pay for cemetery maintenance dwindled long ago, but Bruce’s mother, Mitzi Files Tucker, tended the cemetery before she died in 2013. After that, Bruce, 67, said she took on the job. “I’m not really the designated one. It’s just that nobody else wanted to do it,” she said. Over the years she’s hired someone to mow the grass a couple of times a year, and she’s paid to have fallen trees removed.

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It wasn’t until the past few years, after the Arkansas Times story came out in 2015, that volunteers started showing up for cemetery clean-ups. Around that time, Bruce’s cousin, Vickie McNees, told her something strange was happening at Files Cemetery. They read the news clips and learned Burks had buried the cremains of 40 or more AIDS victims there and that tens of thousands of dollars were being donated toward a memorial.

While Bruce said she and other members of the Files family commend Burks’ good works and don’t object to her burying ashes in the cemetery, they said they’re confused about the role Files Cemetery played in Burks’ story. Bruce said she’s especially perplexed that Burks claims ownership of 262 plots. Burks has said in her book and in multiple media accounts that her mother bought up all the remaining plots inside Files Cemetery during a family spat to prevent Burks’ uncle from being buried there. Burks said those gravesites were her only inheritance.

While Burks has family members buried in the cemetery, Bruce said she couldn’t have bought up any gravesites at Files.

“There’s never been a plot sold or bought by anyone, ever,” Bruce said. “As long as you are related to someone buried in that cemetery you can be buried there. That’s the only prerequisite. That’s all it takes. That’s all it’s ever taken.”

Bruce herself plans to be buried there someday, as does her brother. And she estimates there’s room for only about 30 more graves in Files Cemetery.

She said she tried to contact Burks through Facebook to discuss what was happening at the cemetery, but never connected. Bruce stressed that she doesn’t want to defame Burks in any way, but she said she’s irritated that Burks is claiming ownership.

“Understand right now, before we go any further, I commend 100% what that woman did to help those men,” Bruce said. “I’m sure she was the AIDS angel. She was, OK? Our grief and our problem with her at this point is claiming she owns our family cemetery.”

There’s a way to work this out, Bruce said, but first she has some questions.

“Granted, I don’t want a big memorial built in my family’s cemetery on a pretense. If she can prove to us where she put those people it might be different. A small memorial of some sort in there would not bother me at all.”

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On the heels of the 2021 Fayetteville Pride Parade, where she was honored as grand marshal, Burks answered the phone at her home in Rogers. Yes, she said, she’s heard some people have questions about plans for a memorial at Files Cemetery.

Asked about her ownership claim on the cemetery, Burks said the story hasn’t changed.

picture of The grave of Ruth Coker Burks' mother at Files Cemetery in Hot SpringsBrian Chilson
AT FILES: The grave of Ruth Coker Burks’ mother.

“My mother bought 262 spaces. You can go back and read the original article,” she said.

But what about the people saying no money ever changed hands? Laws regarding maintenance and record keeping for old cemeteries in Arkansas are pretty free and loose, meaning there’s no documentation to speak of, no easy way to settle the question.

“This story is getting way, way, way out of hand. I was there when my mother gave Mitzi Files Tucker $10,000,” Burks said.

Who are those 40(ish) men?

In media accounts over the years and in her new book, Burks recounted burying the ashes of roughly 40 men in Files Cemetery. She repurposed chipped cookie jars from Dryden Pottery in Hot Springs as urns, the now famous story goes. Today, most of those graves have no markers or identification of any kind. It’s unclear where in the cemetery those ashes were buried. What are the names of the men whose ashes are there?

The GoFundMe page for the monument, launched Nov. 16, 2015, includes these words attributed to Burks: “It was always my hope that a monument would someday be placed there with the names of those brave men whose families didn’t want them to bury them … Let’s make this happen!”

In a story that ran in A&U America’s AIDS Magazine on Dec. 11, 2017, Burks reiterated her intention to list victims’ names. Asked what she envisioned for the cemetery, she said, “A weeping angel. We will also have a plaque telling the story of what happened from my eyes and the story of my brave men who died, also listing their names.”

Burks has some of the names, she said, but not all of them. “I never said we would have all of the names. I don’t remember all of the names.” It was such a long time ago, and she didn’t anticipate so much interest decades down the road, Burks said on the phone. “I never thought that I would still be in this 40 years from now,” she said.

picture of Robert Klintworth in Files Cemetery in Hot SpringsBrian Chilson
ROBERT KLINTWORTH: An avid gardener who has worked many hours in Files Cemetery, he said he worries the names of all the men buried there will never be known.

That answer is not good enough for Robert Klintworth, Burks’ longtime friend now turned foe. Klintworth is the partner of Paul Wineland, a man who features prominently in Burks’ new book. Wineland’s previous partner Billy Collins was among the first men in Hot Springs to die of AIDS, and Burks helped Wineland care for Collins in his illness.

Klintworth was living in Hot Springs and met Burks before she moved from Hot Springs to Florida in the 1990s. They reconnected a few years ago, after Burks had returned to Arkansas. Klintworth said he and Wineland spent lots of time helping Burks remember stories from the 1980s and ’90s for her book.

In recent years, Klintworth supported Burks’ work by sometimes planting bulbs and mowing grass in Files Cemetery, posting photos and videos of his work on social media. He sent callouts to other volunteers, asking for donations of plants, equipment and time toward upkeep at Files. He promoted a drag show to raise money for cemetery maintenance in 2019.

Klintworth and Burks were close enough friends last year that Burks asked him to bury the ashes of her partner in Files Cemetery. It was a job he was happy to take on, Klintworth said. “At that point I was enchanted with Ruth. I considered it an honor.”

But Klintworth said he has since grown disillusioned, and doesn’t understand why Burks can’t produce the names of the men she said she buried in those chipped cookie jars. Locals remember a few of the victims, he said. But Burks, as the one who buried the cremains after nightfall, is the only one who can fill out the full roster.

He also said he resents Burks profiting off of a story about the suffering of others, and feels that she should share proceeds with his partner, Wineland, who helped her piece together memories for the book and who has given interviews about Burks’ work to NPR, StoryCorps and “CBS Sunday Morning.” Klintworth acknowledges that he’s angry with Burks for failing to share the spoils of fame with Wineland and other survivors from that era. It’s these men, Klintworth said, who have nurtured both Files Cemetery and the blossoming lore around Burks as the cemetery angel, which has generated a book deal, a movie deal and international recognition.

The friendship between Burks and Klintworth hit the rocks in April of this year, Klintworth said, when he asked her what was happening with the $75,000 from the GoFundMe campaign. Klintworth said Burks told him she had spent it all on bills and personal expenses.

Toni Long, Burks’ attorney, dismissed Klintworth’s accusations as sour grapes. He wants Burks to give him money she doesn’t have, and he wants to share in the notoriety, she said. “Robb wants publicity. Robb wants his 15 minutes of fame. Period.”

Picture of trinket left at Files Cemetery in Hot Springs to honor AIDS victimsBrian Chilson
AT FILES CEMETERY: Visitors often leave decorations and trinkets to honor the AIDS victims whose ashes are buried there.

Since then, Klintworth started a private Facebook group called Forty Young Men. The page description reads, “Dedicated to discovering the names of the #FortyYoungMen buried in Historic Files Cemetery in Hot Springs Arkansas who died of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s but have been left nameless and without a memorial or headstone by Ruth Burks.” The group’s 68 members are sharing genealogy sites, news clips and memories to try to piece together a solid list to augment the names Burks remembers. They keep a working spreadsheet that so far includes the 14 men who Burks wrote about burying in Files Cemetery in her book.

“If anyone knows of anyone who is buried there for sure, we’d like to have the name so we can research it, add it to our list. Hopefully, after we have found at least 40 and verified them, we can find a way to give them their names and a memorial,” Klintworth said.

As for Wineland, he shies away from the controversy. He said he appreciates the help Burks gave him as he cared for his dying partner decades ago, but that he also supports his current partner, Klintworth, in pushing for answers about why there’s no memorial yet.

Where’s the $75k?

New Yorker Travis Dubreuil launched a GoFundMe campaign in November 2015 after reading about Burks in the Arkansas Times story, which reached a national audience after it was picked up by Out magazine. Dubreuil said he met Burks when she visited New York after the fundraiser was already underway, and that they spoke quite a bit in the early days after the fundraiser’s launch. When Dubreuil got a call from an attorney asking him to broaden the scope of the fundraiser to allow for Burks’ medical bills and other expenses, he said he did so gladly.

The fundraiser exceeded his expectations, with 1,900 people chipping in before Debreuil paused the fundraiser in November 2017, when it surpassed the $75,000 mark. Nearly 700 of the donors, hailing from around the world, left comments saying they heard about Burks’ story and wanted to show gratitude.

Dubreuil checked in with Burks on January 11, 2017, via text message to confirm she was getting the donations deposited into her bank account, and she responded that she was. He texted her again on June 19, 2017, saying that donors were starting to ask him about the status of the monument. Burks responded, “hello! They are working on the foundation now.” Dubreuil asked her to send photos so he could share them on the GoFundMe page, but he said he never heard back from her. No foundation is visible at Files Cemetery today.

“Once I started asking more questions, she cut me out,” he said. “She unfriended me on Facebook and my husband as well.”

Dubreuil said he wants to give her the benefit of the doubt, but he has grown disillusioned over the years.

“I thought what you did was amazing once,” he said of Burks. “I started asking questions and you don’t like me anymore? That’s suspect to me.”

Burks referred questions about the status of the monument to Long, an attorney in Pasadena, California, who’s been working with Burks for years and who Burks said is taking charge of the monument project.

It’s true that Burks spent some of the donated money from the 2015 fundraiser on medical expenses, Long said, but that is not a secret, nor should it be a surprise to anyone. The GoFundMe page stipulated that Burks would use some of the money to cover medical bills in the aftermath of a stroke and blood clots.

Long called back the next day to say that since the release of Burks’ book, her financial position has improved enough that she plans to replenish the fund and spend the entirety of the fundraiser proceeds on a monument. “We have every intention of using the full $75,000 to build that memorial,” Long said.

picture of Files Cemetery in Hot SpringsBrian Chilson
PLANS: The terrain at Files Cemetery is rocky, and the soil is dry. An area may have to be graded to make a spot for a memorial, Burks’ attorney said.

Long listed a number of reasons for the monument’s delay. Burks has never built a monument before and didn’t know how exactly to go about it, Long said. And, for financial reasons, Burks prioritized getting her book written over putting a monument up, Long said. “What is she supposed to do? Build a monument and starve?” she said.

But what about the delay? In a March 26, 2017, article in Edge Media, Burks said designers from a Boston firm had come down to Hot Springs in 2016 to assess the cemetery site, and were working on plans for the monument free of charge.

“They wanted to know what I wanted and listened to what I had to say,” Burks said in the article. “They volunteered their time and travel to do this back when my story first came out in 2015.”

But that plan fell through, Long said. “Regarding the people from Boston, I believe they were connected to someone who was interested in making a documentary about Ruth. They flew out, spoke with Ruth, and toured the cemetery. However, neither Ruth nor I ever heard from them again. Once we told them the documentary rights were not available, I believe they lost interest.”

Burks gets lots of inquiries and offers from lots of people. So many, in fact, that Burks grew flustered, Long said.

“That’s probably why there’s been a lot of missteps on her part, dealing with the attention she didn’t ask for.”

Burks herself did not start the GoFundMe campaign for a monument, nor did she ask for one to be started on her behalf, Long pointed out. She characterized Burks as a simple woman struggling with some health problems who was ill-prepared to be thrust into the public eye.

That’s why Burks cut off contact with Dubreuil, Long said, “because she was getting overwhelmed from all of the attention and felt like, ‘Travis is pressuring me and I don’t know what to do.’ ”

One could argue, though, that Burks has asked for the attention. She published an autobiography in 2020 and sold the rights to her story to a movie production company. She advertises her services as a motivational speaker at her website, ruthcokerburks.com.

People who are antsy about the timeline for constructing a monument don’t understand all that goes into a project like this, Long said. And if they’re mad at anyone for the delay, she said, they should be mad at her. Long said she wants to consider permits, maintenance and even what materials will hold up best in Arkansas weather before moving forward. A spot in the bumpy, rocky cemetery will likely have to be graded, another serious consideration, she said.

Burks’ recollection about a $10,000 payment to buy up all the available gravesites at Files notwithstanding, Long said ownership needs to be determined and proper permissions obtained. “She doesn’t own it. I believe it’s owned by the county,” Long said.

“I would ask the public to afford her some grace,” Long said. “There are two options. We can gladly return your money, or you can be patient and know a memorial is coming.”

When asked about the buzz circulating among some people in Arkansas who are growing impatient, Long said she thought any rumors were unfair. She suggested that Klintworth was the sole source of the buzz, and that he was stirring up a fuss in hopes of getting his own book deal.

It’s unjust for people to be questioning Burks’ motives, Long said.

“If Ruth is going to be dragged through the mud because we wanted to slow things down and do things right, that’s a really sad commentary for the gay community in Arkansas and it’s a really slow news day if this is a story you’re going to run with.”

Looper, the Hot Springs minister, also said he would like this story to go away. He simply wants the monument to go up at Files Cemetery and questions about the GoFundMe to be resolved.

“There’s a lot of drama at that cemetery for a lot of souls, inside and outside of the community,” Looper said. “It’s supposed to be a place of rest. Unfortunately, it’s not turned into that.”